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Alarmed as it is by the trend, the government's hands may be tied. Under a 1971 United Nations convention, signatory nations agreed to prohibit the advertisement of psychotropic substances to the public. But the U.S. never passed such a law. So when the DEA recently complained to Celltech about its ad, it could only express strong concern--not threaten legal action.
The Food and Drug Administration is also handcuffed. Most of the ADHD ads are not within its jurisdiction because they neither name the drug nor describe it. (Exception: Celltech's ad for Metadate CD, which the FDA is reviewing.) And even if they were, says FDA official Nancy Ostrove, the agency doesn't have the authority "to treat advertisements for controlled substances any differently" from those for other drugs. As for the drug companies, they insist their ads "are within the letter and spirit of all laws," in the words of a spokesman for McNeil.
Clarke Ross, head of Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, funded in part by the drugmakers, agrees that the ads promote "public awareness of the existence of ADHD." But he thinks many families would prefer advertisers simply to discuss the condition and suggest drugs as part of a multipronged approach.
Certainly Sheila Matthews (who uses her maiden name to protect her son's privacy) does not believe medication is the answer--or even in ADHD's validity. Two years ago, school officials said her son fit an ADHD profile and warned that "if I didn't medicate him, he would self-medicate later"--meaning he would use drugs illegally. Instead, speech and language tutoring solved the problem.
That's why she's so pleased by the new law. But in case she had forgotten what she was up against, she was reminded at last Thursday's signing. A researcher lobbying for funding to test his new ADHD treatment technique was also there--as well as a representative from Novartis, the maker of Ritalin.
--With reporting by Amanda Bower/New York